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A Fantastic First for STEM at Hunter: Science’s Top Journal Publishes an Assistant Professor’s Breakthrough Paper

This January, as radiochemist Jennifer Shusterman celebrates her first anniversary as a Hunter professor, the College celebrates her extraordinary early success in reaching another milestone — one reached by few scientists at any point in their careers: The junior faculty member is the lead author of a paper published in Nature, the world’s foremost scientific journal.

Shusterman’s Nature article documents the unexpected findings of her investigation of Zirconium-88 (88Zr), a radioactive isotope of zirconium. She examined 88Zr after it had been further irradiated — i.e., exposed to neutrons — in a nuclear reactor. A better understanding of neutron capture cross-sections, or the probability of a nucleus capturing a neutron, on radioactive isotopes like 88Zr is key to the advancement of knowledge in fields like nuclear security and nuclear energy.

“Based on calculated predictions, the probability that 88Zr would absorb neutrons was small. So we expected to see 88Zr and its decay product plus only a very small amount of the isotope 89Zr, which is the neutron capture product” she says. “But after the irradiation, we found only a small amount of 88Zr and a substantial amount of 89Zr.” Only three other isotopes are known to have a neutron capture cross-section of this magnitude — and the last of those isotopes was discovered back when early nuclear reactors were built 70 years ago.

Shusterman’s findings help fill in gaps in the nuclear data set on cross-sections for radioactive nuclei. Such cross-sections can have important implications for nuclear energy and defense applications, as well as in astrophysics, helping us understand how the heaviest elements in the cosmos are formed.

“Consensus has not been reached on what causes such a high cross-section in some nuclei compared to others,” says Shusterman. “To get a better understanding, more measurement needs to take place, and new facilities will be starting operations in the next few years which will allow for this.”

Shusterman earned her PhD from UC Berkeley and came to Hunter after postdoctoral studies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a globally renowned center for nuclear research. Her work focuses on investigating isotope production pathways, materials for heavy metal separations, and radiochemical measurements of nuclear reaction properties for application to the nuclear fuel cycle, medicine, forensics and fundamental nuclear science.

“We’ve invested a great deal in STEM, building our infrastructure and recruiting and retaining top-tier faculty,” says Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab. “I look forward to seeing Professor Shusterman continue to produce groundbreaking research, as she also helps prepare the next generation of gifted young scientists.”

Shusterman’s achievement was also celebrated by her colleagues in the Chemistry Department, who noted that she may be the first assistant professor in all of CUNY to be published as a lead and corresponding author in Nature.

“The convention in science is that post-docs or assistant professors are often listed as the lead authors in articles summarizing their post-doctoral projects,” says Michael Drain, the chair of Hunter’s Department of Chemistry. “But that’s in articles that appear in less important journals – not in articles published by Nature!”

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